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Time to Reflect


ed10vi / photo on flickr

With so much recent attention directed to oil prices and the upcoming provincial budget, I have had quite a lot of time to reflect on “strategies for managing with less”.  Volunteer Alberta has been in discussions internally and with our stakeholders about past and impending budget cuts and their impact on the nonprofit/voluntary sector and our collective clients. In discussions with government staff, politicians, corporations, and nonprofits about their concerns and considerations, I have arrived at an overarching question: WHY?

Why would Albertans diminish their ability to lead and govern organizations, address homelessness, support people living with barriers, champion creative endeavours, increase literacy skills, engage people in the things that matter to them, and build inclusive communities?

Why do we focus on scarcity?

Why would we limit ability to contribute to community building and social wellbeing for all?

Isn’t quality of life the very reason we are such a great province?

Being a capacity builder and network of organizations, Volunteer Alberta hears about the struggles to juggle all the roles within a nonprofit, attract great people in a competitive salary market and advance the great cause nonprofit organizations were formed to serve. We also hear how much people care: people who contribute, people who serve, people being served, and people who work in the organizations that fund nonprofits.

The 2015 Provincial Government Budget is set to be released March 26, 2015. The media is full of stories about economic challenges to be addressed in Alberta. Many in the Voluntary sector have expressed concern about the impact of the budget and worry about survival in an environment of decreased funding from not only government, but also from corporate and philanthropic means. Here are some of the things I worry about:

  • Can organizations navigate the volatile economic environment?
  • Will decreased funding undermine our ability to engage citizens in voluntary contribution?
  • Will some of the 187,000 nonprofit jobs in Alberta be lost?
  • Will we lose vital services delivered by the voluntary sector when we know economic downturn increases demand for human services?
  • How can we help organizations transition to a new realities in a healthy manner?
  • Can we use this crisis to learn how to work more collaboratively to achieve social outcomes?
  • Can the voluntary sector step into leadership and find pathways with all sectors to work better, together?

So why DO we have to continually worry about funding for organizations working toward social wellbeing, which is an outcome that crosses all sectors?  After all, we are all people, talking to people, regardless of jobs, roles or positions. We can all listen, learn and act to adapt to changing environments and ensure that Alberta continues to be a province where we care about each other.

Most importantly, we can all influence someone, or many, if we continue the dialogue about the value in maintaining a healthy and resilient voluntary sector. Resources come in many currencies: time, skills, money and goods. If all Albertans – citizens, nonprofits, government, and business – contribute in a strategic and collective manner, Alberta can continue to grow into a province where citizens are engaged and society as a whole works towards building vibrant communities.

Great communities are built on a continuum of inclusion, participation, and engagement for a better quality of life for all.  Strong nonprofit organizations are a platform for citizen engagement. As citizens we influence budgets and public policy by effectively using our voice.

My call to action for you today is:

Start talking more and more often about how you feel about vital stakeholder contributions to social wellbeing.
Share how you participate and contribute to community and why you think it is important.

It’s a great story that citizens, leaders, funders and decision makers must continue to hear. Let’s keep the conversation going!

Jann Beeston, Executive Director
Volunteer Alberta

Who will you be thinking of on Giving Tuesday?

Courtesy of Calgary Herald

Courtesy of Calgary Herald

Giving Tuesday is a spin-off event from American Thanksgiving that serves as a response to consumer-driven days Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It may have originated in the United States in 2012, but Canadians enthusiastically embraced the Giving Tuesday concept and brought it north of the border last year. December 2 will mark the 2nd annual Giving Tuesday Canada, and whether you participate or not, it serves as a reminder that the “giving season” is upon us.

When faced with the range of causes to choose from, people often determine certain causes meaningful to them that they focus their donations on. Over the years the cause I have focussed a majority of my donations on is homelessness.

To some Albertans, winter means great outdoor activities, and to others it means having to deal with frozen car batteries and slippery sidewalks. But for those Albertans without a home, it can be a very dangerous time. The fact is, on many winter nights, Alberta’s homeless face potentially fatal temperatures. Homelessness is a complex issue, and in our frozen climate it is an especially serious one. Fortunately, there are amazing Alberta nonprofits, in cooperation with municipal and provincial governments, working towards eliminating homelessness in this province, and there are other great organizations on the front lines bringing people in from the cold and giving them a good meal.

The results of the recently released 2014 Point-in-Time Homeless Count, conducted across Alberta by 7 Cities on Housing and Homelessness and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, revealed that there are currently 6399 homeless Albertans. That number is down from 7657 in 2008, so progress is being made in the effort to end homelessness, but that is of no comfort to those left out in the cold.

I am inspired by the work of organizations fighting to end homelessness, like Homeward Trust, Medicine Hat Community Housing Society and the Calgary Homeless Foundation; and those organizations helping Alberta’s homeless on a day to day basis, such as the Bissell Centre, Hope Mission, The Mustard Seed (Edmonton & Calgary), The Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, in addition to the many other organizations doing great work. On Giving Tuesday, and throughout the holiday season, I will be thinking of the thousands of individuals across Alberta without food or shelter.

That’s where my donations will be going. But, Alberta has about 25,000 registered nonprofits that are working tirelessly to make this is a better province to live for everyone. There are excellent organizations in every subsector, and they all deserve the support of our donations and volunteer hours.

What cause do you donate to? Who will you be giving to on Giving Tuesday?

Tim Henderson, Program and Communications Coordinator

Is Your Organization Doing Enough Research and Evaluation?

evaluationIn September 2012, I decided to go back to school part-time and do the Public Relations Program at Macewan University. I will complete my program later this year and I can’t speak highly enough about the program, the instructors and the content. It was also an opportunity for me to explore the for-profit world from an interesting standpoint: my entire post post-secondary work experience has been in the nonprofit sector. I started my professional career here at VA and going back to school (in this particular program) has taught me that while there are many similarities between the sectors, the nonprofit sector can be very different.

The courses in my program have been quite varied but several concepts and principles run throughout the program. One in particular that hit close to home was the RACE formula: research, analyze, communicate, evaluate. After learning how crucial the research phase is to a communications plan, I realized how often we aren’t able to do that in the nonprofit sector. As we carefully craft funding proposals and consider the logistics of program operations, we don’t always have the time to research to validate that this new program/initiative/project is required in the sector or in our community. We hope for the best and if that project doesn’t quite meet targets, we wonder why. Was it something we did? Did we miss something? Did the logo or font not appeal to people?

It’s not for lack of trying. When a funding approval letter comes in the mail months after the project’s projected start date it creates a sense of urgency.  Sometimes there simply isn’t time to research, because from day one it’s already behind and the tendency is to head right to program planning.

Evaluation is also an aspect that can also be inadvertently neglected. We complete the funding report templates, but will we relate those results back to our strategic plan or our mission and values? Once we give the funder the information they require, how can we turn it into something tangible to demonstrate impact and perhaps produce better results next year?

Research should be built into project timelines and budget, with ample time for focus groups, surveying or literature review. Evaluation needs to be an accurate reflection of the success of the project for an organization, not just the return on investment for funders.

We might even find that thorough evaluation will recommend research.

Check out these resources on research & evaluation:

VARC Learning Resource Guides on Program Evaluation
Pillar Nonprofit Network – Sector Research
Or, search VARC for research and evaluation resources

Lisa Michetti, Member Engagement Manager

Guest Blog: Community Giving Program Helps Nonprofits Achieve Their Goals

oassis_newGrant programs seem to be getting scarcer by the day. Many organizations rely on project funding to allow them to carry out the good work that they do in their communities. One grant program that you may not be aware of is Green Shield Canada’Community Giving Program.

The Community Giving Program provides funding to community-based, nonprofit organizations to help them achieve success with their goals. Green Shield Canada accepts applications from Canadian nonprofit organizations and charitable organizations registered with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) each year.  The online application link for their Community Giving Program is posted on their website and applications are due by March 15 each year. All nonprofit organizations can apply for funding; there is no need to be a Green Shield client. Green Shield’s objective is to provide funding annually for projects that:

  • Address an under-serviced or under-funded subject, geographic region or demographic
  • Outline clear, measurable outcomes with demonstrable results
  • Include a strategy to address projects’ longer term sustainability

OASSIS is proud to partner with Green Shield Canada as our health and dental provider.   In 2013, eight OASSIS agencies were funded through the GSC program for a total of $158,650 in grants.

For additional information and to apply for funding, please visit the Community Giving Program website.

Karen Bentham, Executive Director, OASSIS

New Thinking Tackles Old Problems

New thinkingOver the past few months, the board and staff of Volunteer Alberta have been working on a new strategic plan. This process has been both challenging and rewarding, as we have embraced the opportunity to redefine our goals and strategies for the coming years. For me, being new to strategic planning, the most interesting part of the whole process was how we started. To lay a strong foundation for the next months, we had Unstoppable Conversations work with us to get to the root of how we think and how we could think better.

Often when organizations identify problems that are holding them back, they come up with a list including resources, funding, technology, and people. For example, “there isn’t enough funding”, or “funding is too competitive”. These obstacles could actually be symptoms or results. Trying to change them without going further back to the activities that led to those results, and to the thinking that led to those activities, means nothing is going to change.

Sometimes, instead of trying to change our thinking (the root of everything we do) organizations work backwards – we let our results inform our activities rather than the other way around. For example, an organization might apply for any grant, even for projects only vaguely related to their mission, in order to solve the problem of a lack of funding. The new result? They are still lack the funding to meet their objectives, and they are spending a lot of staff time chasing money to do these additional projects, further depleting their human resources. Meanwhile, they have never stopped to ask what beliefs or thinking led them to pursue these activities in the first place.

thinking activities results

Kevin Gangel and Vik Maraj of Unstoppable Conversations teach organizations to look for their hidden constraints in their thinking so that they can begin to change their results and better achieve their outcomes. Some examples of the type of thinking that might lead an organization to use a lot of staff hours applying for every small funding source include:

  • “We don’t think funders value what we really do “
  • “We have always done it this way”
  • “There isn’t enough money to go around to the whole sector, so we need to compete for it”

That is some pretty bleak thinking. But we can change it. Some examples of new thinking that could replace these negative beliefs include:

  • “We have valuable impact and we can communicate that value to our donors, funders, and new potential supporters”
  • “We believe in working together with other organizations to meet our shared goals”

With new thinking like this, activities and results can start to change. Suddenly an organization isn’t asking for every grant they hear about it; instead, they are shopping around in new places for funders that share their vision and who are a good fit for their core programs. They now have staff time to do it, because they aren’t using all of their human capacity on additional grant applications or side projects!

Or maybe the organization tackles their issue of competing for funding by applying for collaborative funding with another organization, or only applying for funding after ensuring they aren’t duplicating existing services.

What other thinking could we change? What else is holding organizations back? Take a look at your thinking, rather than your results, and you might just find a new and better way to achieve your goals!

Sam Kriviak, Project Coordinator

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